Tag Archives: 19th century American poetry

Fitz-Greene Halleck is next in my tour through nineteenth century American poetry, courtesy of the Library of America.

The selection begins with “On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake” (Drake was a friend of Halleck’s, and, per Wikipedia, possibly an unrequited love interest). The poem itself is of mild interest. It gives no sense of Drake the man, filled as it is with imprecise praise. “None knew thee but to love thee,” we are told, but we are given no insight into why. The best we are told is that his is one of those “hearts, whose truth was proven.” The first two stanzas are devoted to this, and forebode a dull poem. In the third stanza, however, things begin to change. A man like Drake, when he dies, ought to have his worth publicized (stanza three), and I ( = Halleck), as his close friend, should be the publicist (stanza four). But, Halleck finds, he can’t:

While memory bids me weep thee,
Nor thoughts nor words are free,
The grief is fixed too deeply
That mourns a man like thee.

In this stanza, the poem comes to grips with its own incapacity, its inability to provide Drake with the remembrance he deserves. The very love that made Halleck fit to honor Drake makes him unable to do so—and will until the feeling of love fades. This catch-22 is the heart of the poem, and somewhat rescues it from its opening clichés (which, of course, are by the end seen to be deliberately so).

But only somewhat. It is a delicate, difficult poem to write, the one that both uses and addresses its use of clichés. I don’t think Halleck quite manages it here. A cliché holds the reader at a distance: by its very familiarity it is not conducive to deep feeling and close engagement. The poem, in using clichés, must encourage such engagement in other ways. And that’s where this poem fails. It gets across the idea of the conflict, but never quite makes me feel it. It is a touching tribute, but not a great poem.

The second poem included here, “Alnwick Castle”, appears to be a lament that trade is eliminating the unity of Christiandom. “The age of bargaining, said Burke, / Has come”, with the result that “The Moslem tramples on the Greek, / And on the Cross and alter stone, / And Christendom looks tamely on”. An early bit of hand-wringing about globalization, I suppose. But two formal features of the poem stand out. First, though it pops up only once in the poem, there is a very nice use of enjambment:

Gaze on the Abbey’s ruined pile:
Does not the succouring Ivy, keeping
Her watch around it, seem to smile,
As o’er a loved one sleeping?

I highlight this because most of the poetry in this volume has been meticulously end-stopped, and that has been part of why it has often felt so stilted. Read these lines aloud, though, and the single enjambment immediately gives them a fluidity and naturalness that would otherwise be lacking.

The second formal feature of note comes midway through the poem, when it transitions from memorializing the castle’s beauty and history to lamenting current states of affairs:

I wandered through the lofty halls
Trod by the Percys of old fame,
And traced upon the chapel walls
Each high, heroic name,
From him who once his standard set
Where now, o’er mosque and minaret,
Glitter the Sultan’s crescent moons;
To him who, when a younger son,
Fought for King George at Lexington,
A Major of Dragoons.
*   *   *   *
That last half stanza—it has dashed
From my warm lip the sparkling cup;
The light that o’er my eye-beam flashed,
The power that bore my spirit up
Above this bank-note world—is gone;
And Alnwick’s but a market town…

As in the poem for Drake, the poem acknowledges itself with a comment on what it is trying (and failing) to do. Here, as before, this meta-commentary is a window into the speaker’s mind. The poem becomes, not just a description of the experience, but the experience itself. It isn’t, after all, the crescent moons that “dash” the poet’s pleasant mood, but “That last half stanza”. It is an intriguingly contemporary touch in otherwise very 19th century poem, and a welcome one. As with the previous poem, it isn’t enough to make the poem one I much care to read again, but it does make Halleck more memorable than most of the rest of what I’ve read from this volume.

About the other three poems by Halleck in this collection—“Marco Bozzaris”; “Red Jacket”; and a selection from “Connecticut”—I have less to say, though “Red Jacket” deserves mention for romanticizing the Native American chieftain only to acknowledge the inaccuracy of this (the replacement picture then introduced is another romanticization, but I suppose you take what you can in C19). It also, if I’m reading the end aright, at least partially acknowledges the tragedy of the treatment of Native Americans.

I’ll end with an appreciation: Halleck is the best writer thus far in this volume. His poems read smoothly. He isn’t breathless, or stilted. While none of the poems quite capture me as poems, each moves fluidly and engagingly—they’re never a chore to read.


I return in this young year to my long project of familiarizing myself with the American poetic tradition. Richard Henry Wilde is next up in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry.

The first poem of his included is “The Lament of the Captive,” a poem in three stanzas. The first goes like this:

My life is like the summer rose
That opens to the morning sky,
And, ere the shades of evening close,
Is scattered on the ground to die:
Yet on that rose’s humble bed
The softest dews of night are shed;
As if she wept such waste to see—
But none shall drop a tear for me!

In the final analysis it’s nothing spectacular, but it’s less tortured than much of the work in this volume so far: it’s easy in its rhythm and natural in its rhymes. It flows smoothly within its formal constraints, rather than calling attention to them. And turning the nightly dew into tears is a nice touch. The subsequent two stanzas are much the same, with different images, each culminating in an image of nature lamenting (“The wind bewail the leafless tree” / “On that lone shore loud moans the sea”). As printed on the page, the poem’s failure to develop is a blemish, though as a song (it was set to music) it is more forgivable.

Taken by itself, then, I think it’s one of the better selections in the volume thus far, though still such as to justify Emerson’s sense that the United States still lacked its national literature. But the appeal of the piece fades when one realizes that Wilde was a slaveowner. True, he was writing about his brother, but it cheapens the feeling behind the piece to discover that it was so haphazardly applied.

The other selections from Wilde are the forgettable sonnet “To the Mocking-Bird” and selections from his unfinished long poem “Hesperia”. Interestingly, in both cases Wilde shows a fondness for within-line lists (if there’s a more technical term for this, I don’t know it):

Thou pour’st a soft, sweet, solemn, pensive strain… (“To the Mocking-Bird”)

Hill, dale, brook, forest, lake, or lawn supplies… (“Hesperia” 3.50)

Wood, water, rocks, turf, flowers, salute the eye… (“Hesperia” 3.101)

Victims of love, hope, anger, fear, remorse… (“Hesperia” 4.67)

Gigantic Sauri, lizards, bats, and fern… (“Hesperia” 4.86)

A fertile, verdant, woodless, boundless plain… (“Hesperia” 4.91)

All that can awe, delight, o’erpower, amaze… (“Hesperia” 4.104)

He’s not as good at it as John Donne, alas:

All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes… (Holy Sonnet VII)

In Wilde’s hands, it feels like a crutch.

It isn’t that Wilde isn’t capable of a nice line here or there, sometimes even a nice stanza (“Hesperia” is written in eight-line iambic pentameter stanzas with an ABABABCC rhyme scheme). The skeptic in me especially enjoys the stanza that begins with the line, given above, about the “Gigantic Sauri”—the stanza goes on to tell us how these fossils might teach us “How limited at last is human thought!” (I may like the sentiment more than the poetry, I admit.)

But, so far as I can tell from the selections provided, “Hesperia” is a sort of paean to the American landscape, turning breathlessly from beauty to beauty. But in doing so it doesn’t capture anything of what it is to be American, to live in this landscape. It is pure spectation. Most frustrating is that Wilde at times hints at a better version of his poem:

If the romantic land whose soil I tread
Could give back all its passions—first and last—… (“Hesperia” 4.74)

But this is left as a mere tantalizing hint. Nowhere in the given text does the land give back its passions. Wilde himself almost realizes this, when he laments his inability to tell certain stories, and wishes for an “Indian Dante” or Homer:

Stern Nature’s monument of savage pride,
Before that rock of famine well might quail,
Did but an Indian Dante tell its tale. (“Hesperia 4.92)

Assiniboin and Sioux both confessed
Such prize well worth the struggle to destroy
A kindred people; but no Homer kept
The memory of thy charms, and so they slept. (“Hesperia” 4.105)

All that Wilde is competent to give us, unfortunately, is “a scene to gaze on!”, as he writes in one stanza. And in another:

…Where fields of cane, with orange-groves between
Embosoming white villas, interlace,
Making a bright and happy sylvan scene,
Viewed by its very serfs with laughing face… (“Hesperia” 4.69)

A scene to gaze on. But, it would seem, nothing more.

With any luck, I’ll be moving in mid-2018, so it’s not the best time to be accumulating books. My main aim, then, is to work through some of the many, many unread volumes currently occupying my shelves. Knowing myself, this resolution will go about as well as most resolutions made around this time, but here’s a prospectus for my 2018 reading premised on optimistic assumptions. I’ll cover only poetry, though undoubtedly I’ll read other things as well.

One of my long-term goals is to familiarize myself with the American poetic tradition, beyond the obvious names. To that end, I’ve been reading the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry (2 vols.)—see here for my reflections. I’ve still only barely made a dent in the first volume. In 2018, I’d like to make substantially more progress.

Another ongoing project I’ll be continuing is John Peck’s Cantilena, which I began in August 2016, only to set it aside for other reading in 2017. (It’s a demanding book.) But in 2018, I will finish it. I will.

I’d also like to delve further into two contemporary poets whose work I’ve loved. Anne Carson’s Nox and Glass, Irony, and God are sitting unread on my shelf; by the end of the year they’ll be sitting read on my shelf. (I may re-read Plainwater while I’m at it.) Similarly, having loved her recent book Debths, I purchased Susan Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial. I’ve made some brief forays into it, but haven’t read it properly. That’s coming, too.

Leaving the land of the living, I’d like to spend some time with the recently dead. Both of John Ashbery’s Library of America volumes are in my possession. I’ve read about 2/3 of the first, and none of the second. If all goes well, I’ll have read all of both (except perhaps for the unpublished poems) by the end of 2018. Going back a bit in 2017 deaths, I also have The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013 lying around, unread, as well as Walcott’s Omeros. And, stretching all the way back to summer 2016, Geoffrey Hill’s collected, Broken Hierarchies, calls to me (I’ve read Without Title and little else by him; see here).

I love Virgil, and spent much of 2017 reading various translations of his Aeneid (Lombardo, Ruden, and Ferry). In 2018, I’ll expand out into some of the other great Roman poets, starting with Horace’s Odes and Epodes (tr. Shepherd) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (tr. Mandelbaum).

2018 will also be the Year of John. I recently had a poem of mine described as a “metaphysical poem.” It might be good if I knew what that meant, so I’ll read that greatest of the metaphysicals, John Donne, whose Complete Poetry and Selected Prose (Modern Library) I conveniently own. And John Milton’s Paradise Lost was among my delusions about what I’d read in 2017. That didn’t happen; it will in 2018. Finally, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs will also find itself read before the year’s end.

Miscellaneous note

For the curious, my three most-read posts of the past year were:

[1] This post detailing my first encounter with the work of John Ashbery, written shortly after he died (why it was most-read should be obvious).

[2] This detailed analysis of William Carlos Williams’ “Between Walls.”

[3] This post considering the role of ambiguity in Virgil’s Aeneid, book 4.

In certain respects, Richard Henry Dana’s “The Dying Raven” is the most interesting poem I’ve so far encountered in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry. It’s the first unrhymed poem in the volume, a longish blank verse piece, and while most lines end with some form of punctuation, it does have some noticeable enjambments. As a result, it doesn’t feel quite as trapped in the past as the poems that precede it, at least at first.

Unfortunately, as a poem, it’s a dull piece. It begins well enough, with a description of the raven’s call as a promise of spring to come—a spring that has come, and is lovingly described. If not especially remarkable, it’s at least a refreshing change of pace. But it doesn’t sustain itself. There are any number of flaws—breathlessness (“Preacher to man’s spirit! / Emblem of Hope! Companion! Comforter!”) and redundancy (especially in the passage alerting us that the raven is now dead)—but the one that really undoes the poem is that it’s emotionally flat. Nowhere is this more apparent than this passage, which follows some musing on the cause of the bird’s death:

I needs must mourn for thee. For I, who have
No fields, nor gather into garners—I
Bear thee both thanks and love, not fear nor hate.

It’s completely bloodless, and it comes right where the poem ought to be reaching its zenith. After this, the poem descends into moralizing, and then it ends. There’s the material here for a good poem, but it’s weighed down by the dross, and the poem as a whole is a failure.

Let’s keep churning them out, shall we? Next up in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry is Samuel Woodworth’s poem “The Bucket.” It’s a pleasant enough bit of nostalgia written in anapestic tetrameter, but hardly a memorable poem. It is all content, with the form as nothing more than the shape of the vessel.

The poem announces itself in the first line:

How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood […]

There is to be no surprise in this poem: an adult is remembering his childhood, and we know that straight away. The nostalgia is specifically for the moss-covered bucket in the well on his father’s plantation. As far as I can tell from the poem, it was a nice enough bucket and I can well imagine the childhood joy of drinking from it. But the poem tends toward the twee, especially in the refrain that ends each stanza (the last quarter of it varies by stanza; the first three quarters do not):

The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well.

It also occurs to me, hearing it so many times in quick succession, that “bucket” is in fact a rather strange sounding word, which doesn’t help Woodworth out here.

Okay, I’ll stop—I really don’t have much interesting to say about this poem.